The attack that Jerry had predicted didn’t come. Well, not right away. I was nervous as a tunnel rat that evening when the convoy of buses brought the day shift back from work at the port and the sun began to sink in the west, and not even the usual several beers at the Enlisted Men’s Club and virtual fog bank of marijuana smoke that I sucked down on the low, dark hill that rose behind our cluster of buildings was sufficient to dampen the sense of foreboding that I carried with me after Jerry shoved off. By the time that I decided to turn in for the night the accumulated self-medication had made it possible for me to sleep and I passed an uneventful night in what can only be described as a near coma.
Each successive day that passed, however, lessened my concern, although I still had an edge that was unusual for me, and was noticed by my friends. On the third evening after Jerry’s visit I stumbled back to my bunk a little bit more wobbly than usual and when I pulled back the blanket I was greeted by the sight of Leroy, curled up and comfortable near my pillow. I am not particularly nervous about snakes, except for the poisonous varieties of course, but on this occasion I shrieked like a little girl when I yanked back that blanket to reveal Leroy’s two beady little reptilian eyes staring back at me.
“Shit!” I cried out. “Why do we keep this fucking snake in here anyway?”
The answer to that rhetorical question was that the hordes of mice with whom we shared that corner of Vietnam had gotten into our stash of weed and also ate any food item that we might accidentally leave out or that was in any way accessible to them. It was heartily discouraging to reach into the insulation in the ceiling of our building to recover some weed that we had hidden there, or to open our wooden footlocker only to find a hole gnawed into it and the crackers or pretzels or whatever else that had been sent to us from our parents or friends back home, only to find it mostly gone, with a sprinkling of mouse left behind to give away the process by which the missing items had disappeared.
Chief, one of my friends in the unit, and I had obtained Leroy from a Vietnamese man with who we did business in an alley in Saigon. Weed he had for us, and harder drugs for those who used them, as well as money exchanges of a black market nature and other services were offered by this gentleman whom we simply called ‘Pop’. We told Pop of our problem and he provided us with a solution at no charge. Leroy was accepted in our hooch for the most part and performed his role admirably, but on such occasions he could give you quite a start.
“Tighten up, fool!” shouted Ray Harris, the African American soldier from Arkansas who saved my butt from his three pissed-off friends, and was one guy who never really took a shine to Leroy. “He was your own damned idea.”
Of course, Leroy protected Ray’s stash and groceries in the same manner as he protected everyone else’s, and Ray would grudgingly acknowledge that the snake was useful. He still never had any love for Leroy and in fact moved to another hooch one night after finding Leroy curled up in his bunk.
On this particular night Leroy was my guest, and after checking my underwear to make sure that I hadn’t striped them I lifted Leroy gently to the floor, from whence he slithered off to find another unoccupied bed to catch a few winks in, and maybe a mouse too.
In a couple of week’s time I had virtually forgotten Jerry’s prediction and life had returned to its usual rhythm of sleep, eat, work, get hammered, and sleep again. I was therefore sound asleep at about two in the morning when a rocket slammed into the roof of our supply room, about thirty yards away from my bunk. I moved pretty quickly for a guy who could barely walk only a couple of hours earlier and by the time I got my pants and shirt on the alert sirens were going off all around our post, and all hell seemed to break out in front of our battalion.
The hit on our supply room was a lucky one for Charlie. We were not an infantry unit and our arms were stored in the supply room, issued only when we were on convoy duty or to back up the infantry if our position came under fire. That rocket made a shambles of our supply room and, although it hit a corner of the building devoted to blankets and steel helmets and so forth, the chaos that it created made any organized handing out of rifles a complete impossibility.
Weapons were passed out as we made our way to what remained of the supply room window after a cursory inspection of each one decided which looked damaged and which did not. I lined up and received my rifle and five clips of ammunition and returned to my prearranged defensive position, hoping that the damned thing wouldn’t blow up in my face when I fired it.
As it turned out I didn’t have to fire my weapon. The incoming small arms fire diminished and soon was light and random, although the red glow of tracers flying over our heads and the evil, tumbling hiss of non-tracer rounds that passed in and among our positions were all able to end our tour of duty in the Republic of South Vietnam in an instant. A couple of the John Wayne types in my unit rolled the dice and returned fire, and luckily non of their rifles malfunctioned. I just hunkered low in a foul, muddy ditch and did an initial and then a second examination of my M-14 rifle by sense of touch. I had been joined at the hip to the M-14 since basic training and could tear it down and reassemble it blindfolded. At that moment it was so dark that I might as well have been blindfolded.
In a short while some guys from the infantry engaged our adversaries at the perimeter of the battalion and a short, sharp engagement took place before the action settled down to a desultory exchange of fire. After about five or ten minutes of that the night was lit up several hundred yards to my right when what looked like every communist soldier in Vietnam except Ho Chi Minh himself slammed into the perimeter of the 289th Engineers who were billeted over that way.
The noise was awesome, even at that distance. A swelling roar of small arms fire punctuated by rocket, mortar and grenade explosions turned our previously tranquil night into a hell on earth in which people were bleeding and dying. Even after having been in-country for many months it was sometimes hard to believe that this was real, although when stray fire came our way we found that we could believe it quickly enough.
Things happened very quickly as soon as the main engagement broke out. The infantry unit to our front wheeled and struck the flank of the attackers as if the move was choreographed, and our officers moved three of our companies forward to provide our own defense while two companies and my administrative detachment were moved to the right to provide reserve support for the battle raging there. I should have been in the group providing reserve but ended up, in the confusion, in one of the companies which deployed forward. I was glad to move, no matter where to, as I traded my muddy ditch for a nice, dry sandbagged revetment. I was confident by now that my rifle would successfully fire if called upon to do so but I prayed as hard as a religious skeptic could pray that I wouldn’t have to.
And I didn’t. The battle raged for a couple of hours, waxing and waning and moving forward and in reverse. One of our companies had to step up as reinforcements and one guy got shot up pretty good, but I think that he made it out of country alive. The Cong broke off the action just before the coming of dawn that would bring the inevitable Cobra helicopters and World War II era AC 47 transport planes that had been converted into platforms for mini guns. One AC 47, or “Puff the Magic Dragon” as we called it, carried three mini guns on one side of the ship, and as it would bank and circle a target it could put 21,000 rounds per minute on an area the size of a football field with each pass, and Cobras carried one mini and a bevy of rockets, and could also do an impressive amount of damage.
Charlie preferred not to get tangled up with these assets any more than was absolutely necessary and so, by the time that light began to crawl up over the eastern horizon, the attackers picked up as many of their dead and injured as they could carry and melted back into the Vietnamese countryside.
It took a while to get the all-clear signal which enabled us to pull out of our positions, turn in our rifles at the wreckage that was our supply room, and then return to our hooches. Folks higher up decided that there would be no shift change on this day and the guys on the Saigon River twenty miles away were going to have to work a second twelve hour shift. Most of us were put on clean up details in our unit and, after things got more or less organized, some of us were released to lounge around our company areas, remaining ready to grab a rifle and renew the engagement in the unlikely event that Charlie tried to catch us napping. I wolfed down a huge lunch – since breakfast had been preempted by other activities – and finally returned to relax on a chair in the shade case by our hooch. There I kicked back and opened a book, letting the craziness of the last twelve hours roll off of me in the manner common to twenty year olds everywhere.
By the next morning we were back to our normal routine; up at O-dark-thirty, dressed and counted and dismissed for breakfast, and then loaded onto the buses that had just brought the exhausted shift back from the port. Many of those guys skipped breakfast and simply collapsed into their bunks. We quickly occupied the bus seats that were still warm from the butts of the previous passengers and the convoy soon snaked out through the gate that so recently saw fire and death, and was still being cleared of any booby traps which might have been left by the attackers. In such a furious action it was unlikely that Charlie had time for such shenanigans, but you learned to never take things for granted.
It was a week after the attack that I returned from work to find a bottle of bourbon whiskey under the blanket on my bunk, along with a note to come and see my Battalion C.O. on my next day off, which happened to be only three days away. This was a totally unexpected windfall, and I instantly thought of the bottle of scotch that I had kicked over while partying with Ray and his friends. Before I could forget, or weaken and drink the whole thing by myself, I carried the bottle to Ray’s bunk and handed it to him.
“Here man. I’ve been wanting to get you a replacement for the jug that I knocked over with your friends a couple of weeks ago and finally got around to it. You can share it with your friends if you want to, and tell them again that I’m sorry about being such a clumsy dickhead.”
Ray was surprised at first, but we were pretty good friends and he accepted the bottle readily. That night, Ray was hosting two of the three friends who had wanted to kick my ass earlier, and he called me over to his bunk. Ray’s friends, who had also been surprised that I replaced the bottle, were friendly enough with me, and after we killed off the bottle we retired to the hill behind our unit to smoke a joint or two.
“Are you CID?” one of Ray’s friends asked me. CID, or Criminal Investigation Division, was the Army unit tasked with finding out who was engaged in nefarious activities among the rank and file, and the belief was that if you asked a person if they were CID and they answered “No”, then they couldn’t bust you. I have no idea if that is true or not. I could see that Ray was embarrassed but I was not offended at all.
“No man” I answered, as I dug a Saigon bomber out of my shirt pocket. “You got a light?”
Ray’s friend produced his Zippo and I fired up the joint, took a hit, and passed it to him. The bomber made its rounds and came back to me. After being deeply toked by three very black guys I stuck the joint between my lily white lips and sucked in a lungful of the nearly hallucinogenic smoke. The joint was soon smoked down to a nub, and a couple other followed in its footsteps. B the end of the evening I had two new friends and wobbled unsteadily but happily back to my bunk where, after checking for Leroy or any little evidences of his having passed by, I crawled into bed to collapse and do it all again the next morning.